Quantity Is Quality

SIMENON, Georges, 1963,  Ecrivain (F)                                     © ERLING MANDELMANN ©
SIMENON, Georges, 1963, Ecrivain (F) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

Recently I made the mistake of reading about Georges Simenon. He’s one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t know much about his life until recently. I’ve been in something of a funk ever since.

It’s always tricky reading about other writers; biographies leave so much out that we’re inevitably left with the romantic sheen that hides the unsavory parts of a person. Look behind the myths of Hemingway, Bukowski, Kerouac, Highsmith and others, and the romance quickly dissipates in a haze of alcoholism, pettiness, prejudice and violence. As I like to say, we writers are only semi-human, after all.

But I was talking about Simenon (wasn’t I?)—oh yes. Simenon had his faults too—for example he bragged that he had bedded 10,000 women, in addition to the 2 or 3 he married—but those flaws don’t concern me right now. What I’m thinking about is his literary output, which is estimated at 200 novels and literally countless (thousands) of stories. He could write 20,000 words at a single sitting, according to legend. What’s really infuriating about that is how good so much of his output was and still is. It’s not only Simenon, of course: most of my heroes were (or are) prolific.

It’s perfectly acceptable for “literary” novelists to produce a book every few years, but those of us in the genre world have to be much more productive: most publishers want to see 2-3 titles a year flying off our fingers (which would probably be a rather slow weekend of work for Georges Simenon). The only way to do that is to write more and think less. Writing becomes less about craft and labor, and more of an act of faith—trusting that our fingers know where to go, and that our characters will guide us to where they need to be. It’s something I still struggle with a bit, though it’s gotten easier over the past few years. Most of us writers are, let’s face it, control freaks, playing puppetmaster in our own worlds. The truly great ones, I think, have no time for such grandiose nonsense. They’re too busy writing the two most important words a writer can write—The End—and moving onto the next story as fast as possible.

The argument against this approach comes from those who believe that every sentence must be slaved over, caressed and cajoled into shimmering—or lapidary, to use a favorite MFA word—perfection. I used to fall into the perfection trap; escaping from it has been the single most wonderful development in my writing life since buying my first manual typewriter 25 years ago. (I also think that lapidary is a rotten word to use in almost any context, but maybe that’s why I don’t have an MFA).

Writing for me is not about fame, fortune, or immortality—though I wouldn’t refuse any of them. It’s about making sure that I’ve given life and voice to as many of those characters and situations flying around my head as possible. And the only way I can do that is by letting them speak through me as quickly and efficiently as I can. I have to believe that if I take care of the quantity, the quality will take care of itself.

4 thoughts on “Quantity Is Quality

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  1. I’m with you on the quantity issue, Patrick. I try to get one novel done in a year, but life has intervened lately and made that too difficult and stressful. But two or three? At my typical rate of a page an hour, and considering that I do 2-3 drafts, revising until I’m only playing with individual words, that would be more than a full-time job! Simenon obviously had a lot of stamina, in more ways than one.


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